Whenever I return books to the public library I need to just dump them off and quickly run away. Once I venture inside for any length of time I almost always end up grabbing more books. The last time I did this I ended up with a number of books, including Juan Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World. Fortunately for me, I grabbed a good one.
Cole teaches history at the University of Michigan and also blogs about the Middle East, history and religion on his blog Informed Comment, at www.juancole.com. His 2009 book Engaging the Muslim World is a well-written, clear and intelligent critique of recent United States policy towards the Muslim world. While many authors are content to focus solely on the Middle East, thankfully Cole broadens his discussion to include Pakistan, Afghanistan as well as the non-Arab nation of Iran. For good, bad or otherwise, according to Cole the chief factor determining America’s relations to the Muslim world is our nation’s desire to maintain access to the region’s petroleum. While one could argue that such an analysis is an overly simplistic one, in my opinion Cole does an admirable job making his case. Naturally then, it’s no surprise Cole blames the Neocons of the previous presidential administration, motivated by their desire to secure future petroleum supplies, for America’s invasion of Iraq. Once again, Cole might be wrong, but when it comes to looking at what behind the scenes actions led to the run-up 2003 invasion, much like Ron Suskind did in Way of the World, Cole does a pretty good job connecting the dots. Right, wrong or somewhere in the middle, Cole makes his claim clearly and persuasively.
Just like Robin Wright in Dreams and Shadows and Neil MacFarquhar in The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday in Engaging the Muslim World Cole examines the latest grass-roots political movements in the region and by doing so dispels some of the myths surrounding the alleged fascist and violent nature of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. In addressing other possible misconceptions, Cole blames the existence of religiouly segregated communities resulting from bloody ethnic cleansing for the relative decrease in Iraqi violence as opposed to any positive contributions stemming from the 2008 surge of American armed forces.
In my personal opinion, I thought Cole’s attempts to downplay the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear weapons program might be the weakest part of his book. To Cole’s defense, he bases his arguments on the findings of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate which stated that Iran had stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003. However, as anyone who has been following the news could possibly testify, more recent circumstantial evidence tends to indicate that Iran is involved in some sort of advanced nuclear research program, with the ultimate goal in all likelihood being the production of significant amounts of bomb-grade fissionable material. Therefore, to get a more hawkish opinion of Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions I would recommend Dore Gold’s recent book The Rise of Nuclear Iran as well as Amir Taheri’s The Persian Night. And for a more pragmatic approach to Iran, I highly recommend Robert Baer’s The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.
On several occasions I’ve encountered books written from a somewhat conservative point of view. While I didn’t agree with everything the authors might have said, thanks to their good writing and thoughtful presentation of their arguments I ended up enjoying their books. With Cole’s Engaging the Muslim World, I’m wondering if I’ve encountered a considerably liberal book that while I didn’t agree with everything the author said, nevertheless as a result of his good writing and intelligent arguments, I highly enjoyed.